A screengrab from the CNN show The Lead with Jake Tapper features embattled FOX news reporter James Rosen in an Obama administration wire tapping case. / CNN
WASHINGTON - A former State Department analyst accused of leaking classified defense information on North Korea to a Fox News reporter pleaded guilty Friday in federal court.
As part of the government's plea agreement with Stephen Kim, the former analyst acknowledged disclosure of the information and will be required to serve 13 months in prison followed by a year of supervised released, if the deal is approved.
The investigation, while focusing on Kim, also raised questions about the Justice Department's investigative tactics after it was revealed that authorities also secretly obtained the e-mails and tracked the movements of Fox News reporter James Rosen as part of the inquiry.
Among the most politically charged documents related to the inquiry was a 2010 search warrant affidavit outlining the government's pursuit of contents from the reporter's e-mail account. It stated in part that "there is probable cause to believe that the reporter has committed or is committing a violationā?¦as an aider and abettor and/or conspirator to which the materials relate.''
The case and separate disclosures that the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from 20 phone lines used by Associated Press journalists as part of an un-related leak investigation, prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to issue new guidelines for dealing with journalists in leak investigations.
Kim, 46, was detailed to the State Department's Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation (VCI) at the time of the disclosure. At the time, Kim worked as a senior adviser for Intelligence to the assistant secretary of State for VCI. According to court documents, on June 11, 2009, Kim "knowingly and willfully" disclosed information related to the military capabilities and preparedness of North Korea and was contained in an intelligence report that Kim accessed on a classified computer database.
Within hours of the disclosure, prosecutors said, the information was published and included the material Kim had disclosed.
"Today, Stephen Kim admitted to violating his oath to protect our country by disclosing highly classified intelligence about North Korea's military capabilities," U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said. "Stephen Kim admits that he wasn't a whistleblower. He admits that his actions could put America at risk. Within hours of the dissemination of a top secret intelligence report about North Korea, he exposed its secrets, which were then broadcast to the world.''
Kim's attorney, Abbe Lowell, said his client "takes full responsibility for his actions,'' but maintained that Kim "did not steal any information.''
"Stephen Kim did what so many government officials do every day in Washington, D.C.: He talked to a reporter,'' Lowell said in a written statement.
"Stephen did not reveal any intelligence sources or methods. The information at issue was less sensitive or surprising than much of what we read in the newspaper every day. At the time of the disclosure and during the case, many former government officials and media commentators noted that the information was nothing significant, that much of it was in public sources and the the prosecution ... was another example of the over-classification of information by the government.''
Because Lowell said Kim faced "draconian penalties'' of the Espionage Act that exposed him to up to 15 years in prison, the attorney said his client decided to "move forward with his life.''
"His life has been in limbo for four years,'' Lowell said. "With his plea today, he hopes to find a path back to some normalcy.''
Kim's sister, Yuri Lustenberger-Kim, said the government's prosecution had taken a "horrific toll on my brother and our entire family.''
"We had to make a difficult choice given that our resources are exhausted, both financially and emotionally and because we want Stephen to have a second life,'' Lustenberger-Kim said. "The decision to plead has been the most wrenching, painful decision in our collective family experience.''
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